I've been following you for quite some time, and the information you've provided through your blog and posts on facebook has been incredibly useful to me as [leadership in a growing] league. Our league's culture has always been exceptional--one of mutual support, positivity, warmth, and welcome; as well as one of professionalism. Unfortunately, for the first time something's emerging that could threaten that established culture--we're beginning to see a pattern of gossip.
The gossip is stemming from one specific member [A] who is a prominent voice on the league, heavily involved in the leadership, and a long-standing member. She's also one the oldest members and one the members with the most "professional" background There are two other members [B & C] who regularly participate in the gossip, but A is the only one who seems to instigate it. When I've witnessed it happen, it's in a small group at practice sessions while gearing up/down--which makes it worse because if others overhear, it could hurt their feelings/offend them, encourage them to gossip themselves, or just sour them on the league altogether. Our positive, supportive culture will look and feel hypocritical and empty if we allow this to continue. We want to nip this behavior in the bud now.
I’ve read through your free e-book, Top 5 League Struggles & How to Fix Them, and it’s been very helpful. Specifically, the example of addressing conflict avoidance league-wide has given me a great structure to work off of when outlining a solution. However, I do have some additional questions that I’m struggling with that are specific to our situation. I figured I’d bring them right to the source, and see if the fine women of RDS have any insight!
1. In the scenario in the “Toxic Culture” part of the e-book, I know that gossiping was the symptom, and conflict avoidance was the root cause. I’m not sure if that’s the case here--“A” has no trouble voicing her opinions directly when working within the league leadership, or challenging others on their opinions. She seems to just enjoy the act of gossiping with other people. Does this mean that gossip is the root cause, or is it still conflict avoidance, or is it something else entirely?
2. I’m concerned that in trying to create a “no-tolerance” culture towards gossiping, it will result in some feeling like their language or interpersonal communication is being “policed” or "censored". How do we avoid this?
We are so glad to hear that RDS has been a meaningful resource for you! Thanks for coming to us with this issue, I hope that I will be able to give you some tips that will help your league continue to be successful. This is a long reply, so hang it there!
The situation you are describing with skater A is certainly a challenging one though not uncommon. Your instinct that this behavior needs to be addressed before it becomes a group norm that will affect your league culture is a good one.
Gossip is a challenging behavior to address partly because it is so indirect, so passive-aggressive. Sometimes it is a symptom of a larger problem like the culture mentioned in the ebook or a variety of other scenarios. Gossip can stem from group members feeling insecure, lack of confidence in leadership or any number of reasons. Gossip can also just be an individual issue. Some people have developed a habit of gossip because it's what people in their family or friend groups do, some people feel powerful when they gossip, some people use gossip as social capitol to build relationships and sometimes people just get out of touch with their own values and expectations of behavior.
One way to determine if a behavior is a group norm or an individual habit is to observe whether or not other group members are participating and/or supporting the behavior. From what you described it sounds like gossip is currently limited to just a couple of individuals. It also sounds like there isn't a strong culture that is shutting down the gossip. With that in mind you will want to address this issue in two ways.
First, if the gossip is indeed stemming primarily from skater A, she needs to be confronted directly.
Second, you will want to reinforce with the whole group that direct and open communication is what is expected in the league and instances of gossip should be confronted.
Skater A is clearly very invested in the league and wants whats best for the group, otherwise she would not be so involved. It also sounds like she has good communication skills in her tool belt. That is great because she may not need skill coaching so much as a simple conversation. I would recommend having someone from the league sit down and having a one-on-one conversation. It should be someone she trusts and respects. It should also be someone who has seen the gossiping behavior first hand so it does not become a 'she-said/she-said' conversation. During this conversation you will want to:
Here is a blog post that includes some other tips for having difficult conversations with league members. http://www.rollerderbysolutions.net/ask-rds/the-cold-hard-truth-or-at-least-how-to-deliver-it
Next you'll want to reinforce your positive culture and group norms. Has your league sat down and had a straightforward conversation about your values and how they are reflected in your group norms? This is an incredibly important task that should be done at least annually. Especially as our organizations age and mature it is important that we are explicit about our standards of behavior. In the beginning of starting our leagues we are all on the same page about our attitudes, beliefs and actions and it is dangerous to roll along year in and year out assuming that everyone is still on that page, especially as we start getting new members. To have a strong, intentional culture you need to be openly and directly discussing things like values and expectations.
I hear your concerns about making something non-negotiable, about having a no-tolerance policy towards any one behavior. One mistake that we sometimes get into when we talk about thins being nonnegotiable is that we mistake it for meaning that if there is an occurrence then that person needs to be severely disciplined or kicked out of the group. A nonnegotiable norm just means that every time there is an occurrence it is addressed in some manner and the appropriate/desirable behavior is reinforced.
To specifically address your concern about people feeling like their language or communication style is being policed, I have two thoughts. First, there is a difference between gossip that is and isn't hurtful, right? We all talk with our friends about stuff that's going on, bounce ideas off of them and ask for advice. Those conversations are problematic when they are used to damage people's reputations, spread untrue or unfavorable information, and to rally people over to someone's 'side'. So, when you are talking about what sort of communication is and is not OK in the group, be as specific and descriptive as possible. This illustrates one of the reasons that having a group conversation about communication and group norms is so important; it is the opportunity for everyone to get on the same page and come to agreement about exactly what you mean.
Second, it is OK for you, as a league, to say 'this is what we do here'. This is how we communicate, this is how we behave, these are our values and this is how we demonstrate them through our norms. And, if you aren't down with these values and norms, then maybe this isn't the place for you. And that's OK. Then it's not about picking on any individual or group of individuals or putting down their actions, it's simple about asserting, 'this is what we do here'. And then people choose whether or not it is the right place for them. To make sure you are being fair though, your league's values and norms should be a part of your new skater orientation so that new members know what they are getting into. And, group members should have input in developing and evaluating those values and norms, which is why it is important to workshop it annually.
So, how do you keep from feeling like you have to 'police' people, or keep people feeling policed? That's where the strong group culture comes in. If it is a norm in the league that people don't gossip, that they use direct communication to deal with issues as they arise or they let them go, then if there is an instance of someone trying to gossip, other group members will say, 'hey, I'm uncomfortable with you talking about that person to me', or 'is there some way that you can deal with this issue head on?', or 'this sounds like a conversation you should be having with so-and-so'. So, group members aren't policing each other, but they are encouraging each other to follow through with the behavior agreements that everyone has made.
It's really important that in addressing the gossiping behavior that you deal with both components, the individual and the group norms. If you do only one or the other you will not have as much success and you will likely be back readdressing the same behavior in the near future.